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Sun, sweat, fruit at Jaemor Farms
Times reporter joins family of workers for a day of toiling to pick crops in the summer heat
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Times reporter Lee Johnson stacks freshly picked blackberries in the Jaemor Farms warehouse. - photo by Tom Reed

Editor’s note: Immigrant farm labor is a hot-button issue for many, with some farmers lamenting they have no choice but to depend on a largely immigrant workforce because white Americans simply don’t last in the fields, others saying farmers must find other options. On Wednesday, reporter Lee Johnson spent the day working in the fields at Jaemor Farms in Alto, not to find answers to those questions but to see firsthand what life is like for those who work on the farm.

You can tell a lot about a man by his hands.

Some hang at the waist calloused and scarred. Others take in the world with smooth palms and groomed fingernails.

A newspaper man’s hands, for instance, are coated with the black residue of fresh ink.

However, as I looked down at my hands Wednesday afternoon, I didn’t see the ink I’ve become so used to in my line of work.

I didn’t see my fingers frantically punching away at a plastic keyboard.

What I saw were dust-covered, purple-stained, nicked up and sun-kissed hands.

For the day, I was a farmhand.

Now, I’m no stranger to manual labor. In fact, that is how I made money over the summer as a teenager. But I have never worked on a farm until Jaemor Farms “hired” me for the day.

So I found my green thumb and set my alarm for 5:30 a.m.

 

A hard day’s work

As the sun was rising, beaming through my car windshield as I drove up Ga. 365, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, or even what I was hoping to encounter.

My tires carved through the gravel drive leading up to the farm, and other cars started piling in to the makeshift parking lot next to the country store. I followed them, parked my car, opened the door and found myself standing with at least a dozen Latinos.

The crew, I assumed.

I was right.

Drew Echols, the farm’s manager, met me behind the store and introduced me to John Gonzalez, one of the two crew managers on the farm and my boss for the day.

John has been with Jaemor for two years and is one of seven full-time employees.

“He’s one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met,” Drew said.

As the crew prepared, John waved me over to a Kubota rough-terrain vehicle. I got in on the passenger side with little idea of where we were going or what we’d be doing.

I soon realized the objective, for at least the morning, was to load up dozens and dozens of flats with blackberries.

As we pulled into the field that hosts the rows of bushes, the crew jumped off the other two trucks. In total, there were 10 to 12 workers.

The guys start grabbing berry flats and homemade PVC pipe stands to hold them. I was handed a metal tray with a handle. It was big enough for two berry flats.

I followed John to one of the rows of berries and he started picking.

I tried to follow along but his hands were almost a blur, pulling blackberries at an astonishing rate.

“Mi amigo,” I said to him. “Estoy nuevo. Necesito ayudo.”

(For Spanish speakers, the correct conjugation is “soy nuevo.” For those non-Spanish speakers, it means “I’m new. I need help.”)

“It’s easy,” he said in broken English, but more coherently than my broken Spanish. “Pick the big, black ones.”

Like that, I had my instructions and got to work.

It’s easy to pick blackberries at 7:30 a.m. It’s cool, there is a nice breeze and the energy from the iced coffee I made at home was still with me.

So as I filled up my flats with the “big, black” berries, I looked around at my co-workers.

There was Edgar Flores, a recent graduate of Habersham Central High School and an aspiring college student. He’s been working on the farm for two summers and is no stranger to hard work.

“I’d rather be out here working than staying at home, to be honest,” he said.

I was thinking I’d rather still be in bed.

There was Mario and Luigi. Well, they’re both named Mario, but to keep the confusion at a minimum, they’re referred to as Mario and Luigi.

Somewhere in the mix was Leo, who will be a senior at Habersham Central.

Then there was Jonathan Parris, the only other white man and a 22-year-old farming hopeful.

“I love it, I really do,” he said. “I grew up on a family farm and my dream is to do something like this. So I’m here trying to learn, trying to get the experience.”

A handful more worked farther away. I tried to immerse myself in the work. And I tried hard.

After about 30 minutes, I looked down and saw my flat full of berries. I was proud.

Then I looked over at John who had stacked up at least two flats and was well on his way to a third.

I kept picking — and falling further behind.

After an hour and a half, I filled maybe three flats. But somehow the back of the Kubota was stacked full of them.

 

A diverse family

These guys are good. I wondered why.

Is it because they’re used to the labor? Is it because I’m just that slow? Is it because of their ethnicity? Maybe all three.

I asked Drew Echols why the majority of his workforce is Hispanic.

“I think most people know that you have primarily Hispanics working on farms,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that people don’t talk about until it becomes a hot-button political issue. That’s when they start talking about it and throwing Hispanics under the bus about how they’re ‘taking our jobs’ or ‘farmers are addicted to cheap labor.’ And that’s a long way from the truth.

“The truth of the matter is these folks work hard, and Americans don’t want to do these jobs.”

Actually, he said, he’s tried to hire Americans. Most of them he puts in those positions don’t last long.

“A lot of time what happens is someone will come out and do the job for one day,” he said. “It’s easy to come out here and work in the 90-degree weather for one day. But the second day is a little worse and the third day is a little worse, and it snowballs into a whole week and you’re so tired you can’t even stand up hardly, and you got muscles in your body hurting that you didn’t even know you had.”

I can attest to that. It was 11 a.m. and my back was already tightening.

But the job wasn’t done.

As I wiped the remains of a blackberry off my right knee and explained to John that it’s not blood, just fruit, we left the field and headed toward the store.

A tractor-trailer carrying thousands of peach baskets has pulled up, needing to be unloaded. At least we got a break from picking blackberries.

And something else happened. I started to feel like one of the crew.

As we carried baskets back and forth like worker ants carrying their payload up and down a tree, we started to joke around.

“You’re my amigo?” John asked.

“Sure,” I replied.

“Say no,” someone from behind me said. “He won’t be my amigo because I’m Mexican. He only has white friends.”

Thanks for the advice, Leo, who was grinning with the brim of his straw hat flipped up.

I declined the counsel and, for at least the rest of the day, John had another “amigo.”

Just after noon, the never-ending trailer of peach baskets was finally unloaded and as my lungs tried to oust the dust that had made a home in them, the sweetest words a man can hear came from the crew: “Lunch time, my friend.”

I stepped inside for a tomato sandwich and some blackberry cobbler, made by “Nana,” and spent some time with Drew and his family.

Jaemor was started by his grandfather, Jimmy, and has been family run ever since.

The importance put on family goes a long way with Drew. So far, in fact, it’s part of the application process.

“I try to hire family-oriented-type folks,” he said.

It’s of the reasons he employs so many Latinos, he said. Well, that, and they seem to hang around long enough for Drew to get to know them.

“From what I’ve seen, since I’ve been managing the farm for the past 10 years, Hispanics are more loyal,” Drew said. “One of the things that really impresses me is the family connection — they really take care of their family. The money that they make goes, first off, to pay for a house, second off, to pay for an automobile. It’s not all the flashy stuff that we’re used to as Americans. A lot of times we’ll go rent movies before we pay our power bill, and they prioritize and take care of their family.”

John knows about that. He had his only son two years ago when he started working on the farm.

He said he works hard to support himself and his wife.

“I’m working out there all day, every day,” John said. “I want work for the boss man. He gave us the jobs. I want every Mexican to work like me — working fast and everything.”

And I may not be Mexican, but John expected the same out of me Wednesday.

After one of the shortest lunch hours of my young life, we hopped back into the trucks and headed back out to the field.

 

A grueling pace

I realized very quickly that a summer morning in Georgia is like vacation compared to the afternoon.

Again, I loaded up my tray with berry flats.

This time, at least in my opinion, I held my own a little better. Instead of the crew being three times faster than me, they were only double my picking speed.

As we move up and down the aisle of berries, John and I figured out that with his broken English and my poor Spanish, we could communicate pretty effectively.

He’s excited about being a father. He enjoys working on the farm and working with Drew. He is looking forward to the corn maze in the fall.

He is originally from a city near Guadalajara, Mexico. He is very responsive to “John, una caja” (John passes out the flats, or “cajas,” and loads the Kubota up with the full ones). He can’t wait to take a vacation with his family once the harvest season slows down.

He’s probably not much different than other laborers.

As we talked and joked with other crew members, our flats filled with berries, my shirt became soaked in sweat, my arms and face started to feel the burn from the sun, my back and knees tightened even more — but something about it felt comfortable.

The crew asked if I was working Thursday. I said no, that I would be in an air-conditioned building drinking coffee while they were out there sweating.

“Oh, cafe,” they said, making a dainty sipping motion, pinky extended.

Then, one of them yelled to a younger guy whose name I didn’t catch: “That’s why you need to stay in school.”

A fatherly lesson in the middle of a blackberry field.

That got me thinking, though. If I hadn’t finished school, could I do something like this every day?

The comfort started to dissipate when the realization hit that this is how some of these guys live.

I asked Edgar why they do this every day. Why not work somewhere else, someplace easier?

“It’s harder to find a job somewhere else, and here we have more potential to actually get the job,” he said. “So I think we work harder to try and keep it because we don’t have as many opportunities to work other places.”

This is just a temporary stop for Edgar. He hopes to make it to Savannah and attend Armstrong Atlantic State University.

He said he has the grades but may take some classes locally before making the move. He said Drew has been giving him advice and pushing him to go to school.

Family, right?

But for some other members of the crew, college or a white-collar job may be out of reach. All that’s left is the farm, or something similar. So they make the best out of it, they told me.

“It seems to me that Hispanics work because they have to,” said Jonathan. “If we had to do the same thing here in America, I think you’d see white guys working just as hard as Hispanics.

“They know they have to perform. They know they have to, so they do, and they do a great job.”

Jonathan, who Drew said “works like a dog,” hopes to own a farm one day.

He’s jumping at the opportunity to work his way up on the farm and, he said, by working with the crew, it gives him a better idea of what the work is like.

I asked him, hypothetically, who he would hire on his farm.

He would look to Americans first but would not oppose hiring legal immigrants, he said.

“I’ve loved working with the guys,” he said. “They’re always full of fun and I’d have nothing against hiring them.”

So as we talked and downed bottles of water and Powerade like we’re camels in a desert, we finally finished up the rows of blackberries.

I almost forgot we were picking, even with the constant reminder of sweat beads finding their way into the inner corner of my eyes.

Final count: a conservative 170 flats for the crew.

It was pushing 4:30 p.m. and, as we loaded up the flats into the Kubota, I was secretly hoping we were done for the day. Lady luck was not on my side.

We got a call from Drew who was standing in what appears to be an empty field, lined with rows of what used to be strawberries.

He was pulling up some sort of plastic from one of the middle rows.

“This is the worst part of the job,” he said to me as we get out of the trucks.

As the crew spread out through the field, Drew explained to me that the strawberry irrigation system on eight rows needed to come out so they can till it down to make room for the cantaloupe trailers when it comes time to harvest them.

That meant pulling up hundreds of yards of plastic and piping that was buried in the ground last year.

Over the next hour we (and I can’t take a lot of credit) uprooted the plastic and loaded it on the truck. It was about 5:30 when we finished and I was drenched in sweat, covered in dirt, exhausted and ready to go home.

As we headed back to the shop, I rode with Drew, who asked me what I thought.

“It’s been good to get out here,” I said. “But don’t expect to see me out here again.”

He laughed and kept driving.

We pulled up to the store and we washed up. The guys punched out and I got a chance to sit down on the nearest thing that looked like it would hold up under my weight.

“You tired?” asked John.

I looked at him and smiled.

“Yeah,” I said. “Vamos a la casa (Let’s go home)”

“Tomorrow?” he asked again.

“No.”

“It’s too hot?” he asked between laughs. “The work is no good for the gringos. Maybe no (for) Jonathan. I like the work. For me, it’s easy work.”

I’ll leave it to him and his crew.

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